PHOTO ESSAY: Cuba is changing

Cuba

Across the island, the streets are buzzing. New businesses are appearing daily as the communist government relaxes its grip on the economy and allows small-scale private enterprise. Cubans are enjoying more freedoms – to travel, to buy and sell goods and services, even to sell their homes.

A massive 311-point programme of change, which has been described as a ‘life or death blueprint to save the revolution’, is in full swing.

Under the leadership of President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger and more pragmatic brother, the government has even rolled out a big welcome mat for foreign investment.

But average wages are barely $20 a month and a million state jobs face the axe.

So, has this small Caribbean outpost of communism finally caved in to capitalism? Will the great social gains of free education and universal healthcare be sacrificed? Or are the country’s rulers trying something uniquely different?

October’s edition of New Internationalist travels to Cuba and examines all this in more depth, asking ordinary Cubans what they think and what changes they want to see.

Che looks over a square in the southern Cuban town of Cienfuegos. ‘You example lives. Your ideas persist,’ reads the slogan. But will they? Cuba is going through a controversial programme of economic and social reform, that involves laying off state workers, encouraging small-scale private enterprise and inviting foreign investment.

‘Can I take your picture?’ I asked an ancient woman in Cienfuegos. Her lined face was so wonderfully full of character. ‘Oh no, I’m ugly’ she insisted. ‘Take a picture of my granddaughter instead.’ So here she is. Average life expectancy in Cuba is high, 79 years – like the US.

The Literacy Museum tells the tale of how, in 1961, Cuba used brigades of students to carry out the most effective campaign ever. By the end of year 96% literacy had been achieved (up from 60-76%). When I visited, the staff were preparing for a delegation of embargo-dodging US teachers.

This stained glass window near Australia, Matanzas province, celebrates a time when Cuba was the largest sugar producer in the world. The industry collapsed after the disintegration of the USSR, its main market. Today sugar accounts for a fraction of Cuba’s export trade, most going to China.

Rousing and combative slogans – and in the background the chimney from a petrol refinery in Cienfuegos, being expanded with the help of Cuba’s major ally,Venezuela. Cuba imports much of the fuel it needs from Venezuela, which in its turn imports Cuban doctors.

‘What will happen to the classic old cars? Will they go eventually?’ I asked a taxi driver at the wheel of a new Peugeot. ‘Oh no!’ he exclaimed. ‘We won’t let that happen. They are part of our heritage, part of our patrimony.’ Spare parts are often imported via Mexico.

Geycel and her mainly female band play their own Cuban ‘fusion’ inspired by Brazilian, Jamaican, US as well as local styles. The lyrics deal with ‘love, double meanings, that sort of thing’. And politics? No! she replies firmly. During the day Geycel is a paediatrician. More than half of Cuba’s doctors are women.

‘I’ve been to Spain’ says Margarita who runs a B&B. She took advantage of the lifting of travel restrictions to visit her daughter in Madrid. ‘I didn’t like it! I prefer it here. Cuba is much nicer, much safer. In Spain poor people get kicked out of their houses. That doesn’t happen here.’


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